Window on Collections, Our Universes, Our Peoples

Review

of an Exhibition

by Sarah Deanehan

Published on February 15, 2010

  • Description:

    As one of the newest museums of the Smithsonian Institution, the National Museum of the American Indian was able to take advantage of some of the (then) newest technologies in its permanent exhibits. On a recent visit, I found that these technological elements have been employed to varying degrees of success. One of the most striking functions of the almost ubiquitous use of various technologies throughout the building is to remind visitors that indigenous peoples and the institution that represents them are not relics of an ancient past, but are very present and modern.

    One of the first interactives I encountered, entitled Windows on Collections, has two locations situated outside of the fourth and third floor exhibitions, on the broad circular balconies that overlook the central Potomac Atrium. A text panel introduces the visitor to the objects in accompanying glass cases. On the fourth floor, the current artifacts are animals depicted in various media including carving and weaving. The panel explains the importance of animals to native cultures and explains that oral traditions impart life lessons through stories about animals. Facing the glass cases are four touch screen terminals. The relatively low height of the terminals makes them accessible to adults, children and people in wheelchairs alike. Though the terminals win points for physical accessibility, an audio component was either omitted, not working on the day of my visit, or simply not easy enough for me to find, making the interactives less useful for the sight impaired.

    The Windows on Collections interactive allows the visitor to get a detailed look at the artifacts in the glass cases by zooming in on photographs of them. I was disappointed not to be able to digitally rotate the images, and the text provided only the level of information one would expect on a standard label. Based on the information provided by the introductory panel, I had expected to be able to access more information on the storytelling theme as it related to each artifact or set of items. In general, it seemed that the kiosks missed the opportunity to provide the depth of information that this type of interactive makes possible.

    I informally observed visitors using the kiosks and found that they attract a wide range of ages, but in general visitors only lingered for a matter of seconds. I appreciate that the Windows on Collections interactive allows the museum to display and provide some information about items that might not have a place in the permanent exhibitions. However, it is my understanding that the museum seeks to situate the objects it displays strongly in the context of the lives of the indigenous peoples who created them. In light of this goal, the lack of informational depth at the kiosks, and the opportunity that they provide to the visitor to skip learning about cultural context altogether, is problematic.

    Other audio and video components scattered throughout the fourth floor exhibits are generally more effective. The permanent exhibitions Our Universes and Our Peoples are divided into sections about and co-curated by different tribal nations, and most sections have at least one A/V component. Animated videos tell traditional stories, and appear with enough regularity to pique the interest of younger and older visitors alike and keep them moving through the exhibit spaces. Every video is accompanied by subtitles, although a stylized font coupled with small screen sizes in some instances made the text difficult for me to make out, even with good vision.

    The last and most conceptually abstract technology on the fourth floor is the storm circle, which tries to impart the metaphor of the 1492 contact and subsequent decimation of native peoples as a storm, with all the destructive force of a hurricane. Visitors standing in the storm circle are surrounded on all sides by screens depicting an ominous sky, inset with smaller video screens that flash between images of storms and images associated with contact; guns, bibles, etc. A voiceover backed by wind and rain sound effects plays on a loop. The storm metaphor is obscured by the use in the small video screens of images that are temporally and physically located, of modern houses being destroyed in recent storms. The metaphor would have been more clearly conveyed by images that omitted any human element. Apart from that, the metaphor of the storm is not likely to be immediately understood by visitors wandering past, because the concept is not introduced earlier in the exhibit. Exhibit developers get points for using technology to elicit a visceral reaction — the space is certainly unsettling — but the relationship between that emotion and the exhibit’s content could be made clearer by introducing the storm concept at the outset of the exhibit.

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